Coastal Research Prize

Screen Shot 2016-04-20 at 7.53.44 AMDefining “the coast” is notoriously difficult. I tend to favor a broad, inclusive definition and always seem to fall back on John Stilgoe’s concise articulation: “Between deep sea and ordinary inland landscape.” I loved his  provocative exploration of the Massachusetts coast in Alongshore and how his definition captures both the fluidity of the coastal environment and the importance of subjective experience to understanding it. Look out for a future post where we tease out some of the implications of that definition. But suffice to say that “the coast” reaches far beyond that ever-shifting line where water meets land.

I’ve recently been thinking a lot about what “coastal research” entails. Part of my postdoc involves facilitating collaborative “coastal” projects by  folks from the hard sciences, social sciences, and humanities. Look across most universities and you see a whole bunch of folks studying the same space from radically different angles. What would happen if we got all those researchers in a room? What could be gained from putting an environmental scientist interested in barrier beaches, with a biologist interested in sea turtles, with a social scientist interested in beach tourism, with a coastal historian, with local activists and policy managers? I’d sure like to find out.

The biggest challenge to starting this trans-disciplinary conversation is identifying scholars across a university who are doing “coastal” work. Some of these researchers have a clear coastal research agenda with a strong funding streams and disciplinary support. Others working on what might be considered a coastal project don’t consider their work “coastal.” And some scholars doing self-identified coastal projects are working on the margins (pun intended) of their field.  Take my discipline, history. “Coastal history” (a term I self-conscisously avoided when writing my dissertation for reasons not worth getting into here) is getting some traction due in large measure to the tireless work of Isaac Land, the Port Towns & Urban Cultures group out of the University of Portsmouth, and several others (hint: follow #coastalhistory to follow this growing conversation on Twitter). But many, many historians are doing work that could be categorized as “coastal” if we applied Stilgoe’s definition.

So how can we find scholars working on coastal projects? Their students. The “Coastal Research” badge (posted above) will be placed on every “coastal” project at tomorrow’s Student Scholar’s Symposium at the University of West Florida. A certificate will be awarded to the undergraduate judged to have the best coastal poster presentation. We hope to highlight coastal research being done by UWF undergraduates, encourage more coastal research (fingers crossed on a monetary award next year), and begin that trans-disciplinary conversation. Until then, I’m looking forward to judging the posters tomorrow!



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Mapping the American Coastal Frontier ca. 1800

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The last post explained how to use QGIS and historic census data to map population density. This post gets to that tricky “so what?” question.

So why map population density in 1800? My current project examines the social, cultural, and physical transformation of the American coast (my shorthand for coast of the United States of America) over the course of the long nineteenth century. I’m primarily interested in the oceanfront between ports, harbors, and the huge natural bays and sounds, that many a European explorer thought led to China, and how they became such a central—arguably essential—part of the American experience.

I’m currently slogging through the first chapter, a survey of the American coast on the eve of its transformation. It’s partly inspired by Marcus Rediker’s magisterial first chapter in Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea and similarly favors fruitful generalization over burdensome qualification. An important subargument of the chapter is to establish the 1800 American coast as a frontier. Well…maybe I do a bit of hair-splitting in the chapter. In any case, one of the many ways to define frontier is through population density. Hence, our maps.

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How to Map Historic Census Data with QGIS

1800 modcomp largewcitiesTen years ago I took an introductory Geographic Information Systems (GIS) class. It was a bit mystifying (as those technical courses can be to us humanities folks) but I could see the potential. I’m sorry to say that the ins and outs of ArcGIS faded from memory as I ran that marathon of coursework, comps, prospectus, etc., etc. Yes, I actually reverted to paper maps, highlighters and, yes, dear reader, I used thumbtacks. It worked for what I needed then, but I need a bit more now.

Maps answer questions. The questions my maps need to answer are really important to my larger project: How many people lived on the American coast? Where did they live? What was the coast’s population density? And how did it change over of the nineteenth century? I tried google and as you might surmise, no good hits. So I cracked open my computer and spent too much time piecing together advice and how-to guides as I stumbled through making my first GIS maps. What follows is how I did it. Why? Honestly, I want to have the directions handy when I’m trying to do this again in a year or two. Secondly, maybe this post can help some uninitiated humanities researcher dip their toes in GIS joy. This post explains how I made the maps above. The next post will analyze them.

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More Ships, Shipwrecks, and Coastal History

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So its taken a few more months than I thought to get back to Ships on the Shore. But what a few months it’s been! I’m happy to report that I recently began an appointment as a Postdoctoral Associate in the Department of History at the University of West Florida in lovely, lovely Pensacola. (This seems a wise place to note that Ships on the Shore remains my personal blog and, as such, does not reflect the opinions of my employer.) My temporary hiatus from higher ed—and this blog—has ended.

A lot has changed on this here internet since Ships on the Shore launched in 2011. For one thing, blogs seem to have become a bit passé. (Don’t ask me where I heard that, though, if pressed, I’d point to an episode of Fresh Air.) Still, working on this blog really helped me research, write, and actually finish my dissertation. I hope it works the same magic as I turn that dissertation into a proper book. The nature of posts will change – there will certainly be fewer and they’ll probably range a bit wider than before as I reframe, revise, and…submit my first manuscript. I’m also working on some really exciting “coastal” projects at UWF and have a few relevant side projects that I hope to share with you as they come together in the months ahead. I’m eager to see how Ships on the Shore develops.

If you’ve made it this far: thank you. Your comments, questions, suggestions, and “views” make work that is notoriously (some say perversely) isolating… social. Please read, comment, click around. Send me an email. Tweet a comment.  Forward a post. Tell me what I got wrong; what I missed; what I got right. I truly appreciate it all.


Some posts that are in the works:

-The coast, the beach, the littoral…are they different? Does it matter?

-Why are coasts so damn complicated?

-Maritime cultural landscapes, disasters, and frontiers—picking historiographical “fights”

-Relearning basic GIS: mapping historic census data with QGIS

-Digital serendipity, or, how the New Jersey Shipwreck Database found me

-quick reviews of recent reads


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“The Wrecker” (1843) by Charles J. Peterson (part 1)

zzMooncussers. Land Pirates. Wreckers. These iconic figures are the epitome of evil. They intentionally lure ships ashore for illegal plunder. Murder, deceit, and bloodcurdling knavery are the tools of their trade, and while their myth endures, especially in the wreck traps of yore (think: Cornwall, New Jersey, Cape Cod), the nefarious wrecker has always been a figment of the Romantic Imagination. A slew of historians–here’s the best yet–have searched high and low for real-life mooncussers and they’ve come up empty handed… well almost. Like other figments of the Romantic Imagination, wreckers became staples of nineteenth-century Atlantic World literature. Wrecker lit is pretty spectacular. I’d like to share a few of these salty tales on Ships on the Shore.

What follows is a classic retelling of a long-forgotten wrecker short story published serially in the Ladies’ National Magazine in July 1843. This one has it all — a raging storm “increasing in fury every hour,” a mysterious, desperate “solitary wayfarer,” an imperiled vessel, and… well you’ll just have to read it. Part one is transcribed below:

The Wrecker.

By Charles J. Peterson

The storm was at its height. During the whole day and part of the preceding night it had been blowing fiercely, increasing in fury every hour, until it now raged with an intensity rarely witnessed even on our hospitable Atlantic coast. The wind whistled shrilly over the flat beach, making the bare elder bushes rattle like dry bones and almost prostrating the solitary wayfarer, who stood, half sheltered by the low sand hill, gazing out over the white and troubled ocean. Whoever he might be he had chosen a singular hour for his watch. It was long after twilight, and, in the shadowy obscurity, the agitated ocean before him, with its dark billows tipped with foam, stretching away before the sight until lost in the gloom of the wild seaboard, had something ghastly in its aspect. A rack of leaden colored clouds drove across the firmament, stooping low down over the waters with a weird and threatening aspect.–They ran in mountains, and though the whole surface of the deep was spotted with foam, there was a white continuous line that never disappeared, just beneath the visible horizon, betokening the shoals on her coast. Further in the waves broke again; and a few yards from the watcher they were shivered for the third time, hurling themselves on the beach in ceaseless thunder. At first their dark bosoms could be seen heaving sullenly up against the black seaboard; then, all at once, a white line of foam, beginning at one end of the toppling wave, would run swiftly along the brow; the crest would curl over for an instant; and then the huge mass of water would plunge headlong, in a cataract of snowy spray, on the beach.–For a space the fragments of the wave would be seen shooting up the sand, and then as rapidly returning with the undertow. Another billow would now break with a concussion as loud as before, again the shattered wave would slide up the beach, and again the undertow would succeed.

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